Toronto Maple Leafs training camp opened yesterday with plenty of questions surrounding the team. Will general manager Dave Nonis pull the trigger on a trade to bring in Roberto Luongo? How will the team handle injuries to Jake Gardiner and Korbinian Holzer on an already dismal-looking defence corps? What will they do with 18-year-old Morgan Rielly?
While these are all tough and important questions to answer (my answers for those questions, for what they’re worth, are as follows: no, not very well, and he’ll probably play five games for the Leafs before being sent back down to junior, as James Mirtle pointed out), there is one question that has haunted Leafs fans since the Mats Sundin Era: Who’s going to be the number one centre?
For all intents and purposes, that answer right now is Mikhail Grabovski. No other centre on the roster comes close to what Grabovski brings to the table in terms of a combination of scoring, playmaking, and defensive effort. He’s a complete player in every sense of the word. But when we ask who is going to be the number one centre, we’re really asking: Who’s going to play between Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul on the top line?
Grabovski is likely to begin the season playing with some combination of new acquisition James van Riemsdyk, Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur. The line of Kulemin-Grabovski-MacArthur has been one of my favourites to watch over the past two years, but chances are van Riemsdyk will be given every opportunity in training camp to stick on one of the top two lines.
Jay McClement and David Steckel are better suited for third- or fourth-line roles and Nazem Kadri probably isn’t ready for prime time action at centre. That leaves Tyler Bozak and Tim Connolly to battle it out for the number one centre role. If I were head coach Randy Carlyle, I would give Connolly every opportunity to grab that role and run with it.
The regular season begins on Saturday, which means Carlyle and his coaching staff have five days to come up with an opening night roster. There won’t be a whole lot of time to try new and exotic things at the number one centre spot; it’ll come down to what we know right now. What we know is the Tyler Bozak Experiment has failed. He’s not a first-line centreman. He could be a decent option on the third- or fourth line, but could we just stop trying to turn him into something he’s not already?
I understand Tim Connolly isn’t such a great option either. He signed a two-year, 9.5 million dollar contract in the 2011 off-season, and 36 points in 70 games is laughably below what we should expect for a guy raking in that kind of dough. But as the old saying goes, beggars can’t be choosers. The Leafs may have uber-wealthy owners, but when it comes to the actual hockey side of things, they’re Charlie Chaplin.
Tim Connolly had ten multi-point games last season, all of which came in the first half of the year. Unsurprisingly, Connolly’s second half swoon almost directly correlates with the rest of the team. I went through video (thank you, Game In Six) of some of Connolly’s best games and noticed another pattern. For many of these games, he’s playing on the top line with Kessel and Lupul.
Can I just take a moment and say how awesome it is to watch the Leafs again, even if it is condensed highlights from a year ago? Only five more days, people. We can make it.
If you only watched this game from January 5th of last season, you would probably ask yourself why Connolly wasn’t given the number one centre spot between Kessel and Lupul the entire season. But Connolly never really got a fair shake on that top line from former head coach Ron Wilson. Bozak seemed to get the majority of minutes, while Connolly got shuffled around a lot. In fairness, Connolly did find some success playing on a line with Clarke MacArthur for a bit, but when Carlyle took over with 18 games remaining, Connolly seemed to get relegated to checking line duty.
Yes, there’s our much-maligned #12 playing on a line with Joey Crabb and David Steckel on March 24th against the Rangers. And yes, there he is scoring the game-tying goal midway through the third period that sent the game to overtime. And yes, there he is scoring an absolutely filthy shootout goal against Henrik Lundqvist. The Leafs sure have a lot of guys who can do those kinds of things, right?
Obviously, they don’t. Connolly was brought in to be the number one centre for a reason: the dude can dangle. He can create space and set up Kessel and Lupul for goals like nobody on the roster not named Grabovski. The purpose of this piece was not to pile on Tyler Bozak, because I think he’s a decent player and capable third-liner (however, people who are much smarter than me tell me his advanced statistics are horrendous, but Connolly really isn’t much better. Beggars…). At the end of the year, chances are the Leafs will be cutting ties with Connolly unless he takes a significant pay cut. He’s only 31, so it’s not like he’s done playing hockey by any means. And don’t forget, it is a contract year, and he’ll be looking at this shortened season as an audition to prove to all 30 teams that he can still be a scorer in this league.
All I am saying is give Tim a chance.